Choosing Mindfulness

Choosing Mindfulness

By Camille Ward, FaithCounts.com Contributor

choosing-mindfulnessEven when sitting still, I feel like I live in a perpetual whirlwind of chaos. On particularly stressful days I find myself pulling my coat tighter and tighter, as if it were the only thing holding me together. I’m not just bad at mindfulness, I’m downright terrible at it.

Sounds like I could use some time in mindful meditation, right? But that would take even more time out of my day.

Maybe that’s the point. Time out.

I’ve begun to realize that I’ve been thinking about mindfulness all wrong. Mindful meditation isn’t about putting another item on the schedule, but about taking things off. All of us need a time out at some point. Meditation allows us to step out of life to practice…for life.

We arrive to life in a shocking explosion of cold and noise and pain. No crash course. No manual. We’re expected to wing it from day one. And it just keeps getting crazier. Yet when the opportunity actually comes along to practice for this circus we call life, we pass it by because we’re too busy. But life, like any other skill, requires a mastering of the basics: The ballerina’s first position, the bassist’s scales, the ball player’s swing. And a brain’s mindset.

Mindful meditation isn’t the goal. It’s the practice. Our goal is a mindful life.

When meditating, we focus on the sensations of the present, allowing distracting thoughts to come and go without judgment. By practicing the skills we need to make the most of life we learn to experience life intentionally and observe and accept change without fear. Hopefully we emerge to find ourselves more content, peaceful, and ready to face life.

Of course, none of these things are useful if we dive back in with the same attitude we had before meditation. We have to learn to apply mindfulness to our life as a whole.

Worry is the opposite of mindfulness. All of us have fruitless worries that clutter up our lives. They pull us into the future, prevent us from engaging with the present, and manage to be exhausting without actually accomplishing anything besides making us unhappy.

In an effort to live more mindfully, I’ve begun my week by listing 5 concerns that I am consciously choosing NOT to worry about:

  • Finding a new apartment next year.
  • Finding gifts for my friends’ unborn children (who aren’t due until July…).
  • If people think I’m lazy because I need naps.
  • If the weather will keep me from getting to work this week.
  • Whether or not I’m ever going to get married.

Okay. That list was kind of hard. But also very relieving. While some of my worries made me feel silly or vulnerable, writing them out helped me remember that most of them aren’t even in my control. They’re real worries, but they interfere with living a happy life. This week, instead of stressing over those things, I’ve been enjoying where I am now. So far it’s felt great.

What about you? What 5 worries are you going to reject? Share in the comments below or on social media, using #faithcounts.

Camille Ward is a student of English Education at BYU. She loves to spend time with her family and is not to be trusted with a budget in bookstores or bakeries.

5 Uncommon Gifts to Give This Christmas

5 Uncommon Gifts to Give This Christmas

By Breanna Olaveson, FaithCounts.com Contributor

uncommon-giftIt’s almost time for Christmas. You’ve sent your holiday cards, baked delicious treats, decorated the house and checked off every item on your shopping list — after all, the spirit of Christmas is the spirit of giving.

Generosity is central to the holiday season, and nothing says “Christmas spirit” like choosing the perfect gift for someone you love. But some of the best gifts you can give aren’t under any Christmas tree. They’re free, they won’t wear out, and they only get better with time. When you give these gifts to family, friends and strangers all year long, you’ll always get more than you give. This year, give these five gifts to everyone you meet.

1. Gratitude

It’s often said that gratitude turns what we have into enough. Maybe it’s a good thing that in the United States, Thanksgiving comes shortly before Christmas. When we take time to reflect on the wonderful things we have, and when we are truly grateful for those blessings, we feel more content and positive.

This holiday season and all year long, cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Be grateful for the gifts you receive, and count your blessings every day. Express gratitude to those who help you. Showing others gratitude will increase love and strengthen relationships.

2. Forgiveness

Buying someone the latest technology is great, but sometimes the best thing you can give another person is your forgiveness. When we forgive, we heal. Others heal. We let go of a weight that brings us down, and we rebuild bridges that were previously burned.

Forgiveness may be one of the most valuable gifts we can give, but it can also be one of the most difficult. If it helps, pray for assistance. When you genuinely seek to let go of anger and hurt, forgiveness is possible. And it is liberating.

3. Love

People from all over the world speak the same language — love. This year, give everyone around you more of it. Give your family a little more of your time. Pay attention to how others are feeling and offer extra kindness to those around you.

This gift can even extend to people you don’t know. Treat your mail carrier, your waitress and your grocery store clerk with extra attention and kindness. When you spread that kind of joy around, you can’t help but feel a little more joy yourself.

4. Positivity

It’s stylish to be cynical, but you don’t have to be. While many people seem to take pleasure in leaving negative reviews online, being critical of others and being generally pessimistic, you can do better. This year, give everyone around you the gift of someone positive to be around.

Try it: when you’re tempted to complain, say something positive instead. Look for the good in someone who upsets you. Thank others for offering you service instead of pointing out how they could have done it better. Being positive and happy is contagious and is the perfect gift to give this year.

5. Faith

We often think faith is something we have in God or in the future, and that is certainly true. But this year, you can give the gift of a different kind of faith: faith in those around you.

Everyone has plans and ambitions, but courage can be difficult to find. Let a friend or family member know that you believe in him or her. Encourage those you meet to pursue their dreams, and offer help and guidance as appropriate. Having faith in the potential of others — especially when they might not believe in their own potential — is among the greatest gifts you can give.

Breanna is the author of two books, the mother of three children, and a frequent contributor to several faith-based magazines and blogs. She blogs about her faith, her family, and her favorite things at www.breannaolaveson.com.

5 Life Lessons from Jackie Kennedy

5 Life Lessons from Jackie Kennedy

By Amy Higley, FaithCounts.com Contributor

jackie-kennedy-01FEED YOUR SPIRIT

“If you cut people off from what nourishes them spiritually, something in them dies.”

Sometimes we may find ourselves feeling like we don’t need religion or spiritual influences in our lives. When that happens, we lose perspective and a sense of purpose that guides much of what we do. Life moves quickly and every day more things can happen to make us feel afraid or out of control. We can stay centered by reading scripture, praying, and serving other people.

MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE

“Even though people may be well-known, they hold in their hearts the emotions of a simple person for the moments that are the most important of those we know on earth: birth, marriage and death.”

Even though some of Jackie’s life appeared to be gilded, her marriage to John F. Kennedy wasn’t perfect, and her family faced several health challenges. We may only see superficial and light-hearted posts of endless perfect moments on Pinterest and Instagram, but behind these posts we often find people experiencing similar insecurities as us. Pictures or tweets don’t tell the full story. We can’t truly see into a person’s heart.

LIFT YOURSELF UP

“One must not let oneself be overwhelmed by sadness.”

After ten years of marriage, Jackie was left a widow with two children. She lost her husband and one son in a three-month time span. Although our losses might not be the same, we all experience devastation. It is perfectly justified to be overcome by feelings of grief and pain as a result, but we shouldn’t let our circumstances rob us of all future happiness. We need to remember happiness is often something we have to choose. If we can’t be in charge of our situations, we can at least be in charge of ourselves. We can try to focus on what we can control going forward. Jackie said seeing the world through her children’s eyes helped restore her faith in her family.

BE PROACTIVE

“We should all do something to right the wrongs that we see and not just complain about them.”

Only talking about problems is not the same as working toward solving them. As First Lady, Jackie was effective at presenting alternatives to issues that concerned her. We need to find reasons to be positive, steps we can take, or habits that we can change. Anyone can criticize, but those who offer solutions become leaders. We should be anxiously engaged in good causes. When we see wrongdoings, we can set about fixing them to improve lives.

MAKE A DIFFERENCE

“One [person] can make a difference and every[one] should try.”

News headlines make it seem like only wealthy, prominent people and heads of companies are capable of making big changes in the world, leading us to sometimes forget the power of people like you and me. Things rarely change when we think others are the ones responsible. We tend to underestimate the change we can bring about. When we hold ourselves accountable for our part and everybody works together, situations begin to improve. Even if we can only give a small amount of time or training or money or food or love, our efforts affect many circles and cause chain reactions. When we see someone pay it forward, it’s easy to follow their example.

Surprising Meanings Behind Christmas Symbols

Surprising Meanings Behind Christmas Symbols

By Sarah Eyring, FaithCounts.com Contributor

holly-art-640x360It’s Christmastime, and while the holiday music plays you and I are hanging wreaths, lights, tinsel, and stockings—but why? What makes tinsel a Christmas tradition? Who first thought wreaths represented the season?

The stories behind some Christmas symbols are easy to guess, but others could surprise you.

An Orange in Your Stocking

Do you usually find fruit in the toe of your stocking on Christmas morning? This tradition dates back to the day of the real Saint Nicholas. Born in present-day Turkey, Saint Nicholas was a bishop who inherited a fortune that he used to help others in need.

In one story of his service, Saint Nicholas learned of a poor man who had three daughters. With no money to offer as dowries, the man feared his daughters could never get married. In the night, Saint Nicholas visited the house and tossed three sacks of gold down the chimney. Some of the gold landed in the girls’ stockings, which were hanging by the fire to dry. The oranges we give today symbolize the gold that was left by Saint Nicholas.

Boughs of Holly

With its bright red berries and green leaves, holly is a beautiful sight, but it’s sharp to the touch. To Christians, the sharp-toothed edges of the holly leaf are symbolic of the crown of thorns placed on Jesus Christ’s head before he was hung on the cross. The red berries are a reminder of the blood Jesus shed.

Tinsel on the Tree

Whether or not you are a fan of tinsel, you will likely agree that it’s better than the alternative in this legend. It tells of a poor family and their first Christmas tree. When Christmas Eve came, they still could not afford to decorate the tree. They went to bed with heavy hearts, and as they slept, spiders covered the tree in webs. Before the family woke, Father Christmas kindly turned the spider webs into silver, and by morning the poor family found it dazzling in the sunlight. The tinsel we hang on our trees is a symbol of that Christmas gift.

Evergreen Wreaths

Both the shape and material of this holiday symbol hold significant meaning. Evergreen plants retain their green leaves or needles, regardless of the weather. They symbolize the life, light, and hope that continually shine—even in the dead of winter. The circular wreaths we shape them into are symbolic of God, who has no beginning and no end.

Poinsettias

This plant’s connection to Christmas began in 16th-century Mexico. The story says that a child with no money was searching for a gift to bring to the church on Christmas Eve. She gathered weeds from the side of the road and placed them on the altar. Immediately, crimson flowers blossomed from the weeds. The star shape of the flower symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem, while its red color represents Jesus Christ’s sacrifice.

What is your favorite Christmas symbol, and what does it mean to you?

5 Inspiring Lessons Learned From Helen Keller

5 Inspiring Lessons Learned From Helen Keller

By Audrey Denison, FaithCounts.com Contributor

helen-keller-015 Inspiring Lessons Learned From Helen Keller

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.”

1. When Helen Keller was just nineteen months old, she developed an illness that resulted in both blindness and deafness. As Helen grew into a young girl, she and her family became increasingly frustrated with her inability to communicate. She learned to recognize her family members by touching their facial features, their clothing, or by detecting the scent of their perfume. Not knowing what to do, Helen’s parents consulted Alexander Graham Bell, who worked with the deaf. He suggested they hire a young woman by the name of Anne Sullivan as Helen’s teacher and mentor. This decision changed Helen’s life forever.

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”

2. After establishing what would become a lifelong friendship, Anne began to teach Helen the alphabet by finger spelling the sign language letters into the palm of Helen’s hand. The most challenging lesson was to help Helen make the connection between a word and a concept. The world-changing breakthrough happened when Anne pumped well water into one of Helen’s hands while finger spelling the word water onto her other one. At that moment, Helen understood that a word represented a concept or a thing. Soon, Helen began recognizing the letter combinations and this lit a fire within her soul. From that point on, Anne had helped Helen develop a relentless desire to learn. With Anne’s help Helen soon learned how to read Braille, write, and even started trying to speak. With her newfound love for learning, Helen began to have a strong desire to attend college. Although she experienced many trials and hardships along the way, she didn’t allow her physical challenges to set her back from dreaming big and then acting on those dreams.

“It’s a terrible thing to see and have no vision.”

3. If anyone realized the importance of having a vision for your life, it was Helen Keller. One of her many accomplishments includes being the first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. Helen did not see her limitations as an excuse not to pursue her dreams. Many people go through their lives with perfect vision, but fail to have a clear vision as to where they want to go and who they want to become. Helen did not let her literal lack of vision stop her from having big dreams. Where many people would have used Helen’s disabilities as a setback and would be focused solely on surviving, Helen was focused on thriving.

“Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light.”

4. Helen knew perfectly that without faith she would not have the strength to overcome her hardships. She learned to grapple with trials both big and small and learned the importance of looking forward to the future with faith and optimism. She recognized that without the faith that Anne Sullivan had in her, she would not have been able to become the accomplished person that she was. Similarly, if Helen did not have faith of her own that fueled her to believe in the beauty of her dreams, then she would have continued to live in darkness. She was diligent in sharing this faith with the world because she desperately wanted others to walk in the light she walked in as well.

“What I am looking for is not out there, it is in me.”

5. Many people spend their entire lives chasing the next “big thing” thinking that some thing or person out there is going to make them happy and bring them fulfillment. Helen recognized early on that happiness was not found, but rather created. Happiness and confidence were attributes she championed from within, not things she would magically find one day if she searched long and hard enough. She was an author, speaker, and activist with a spirit of determination that served as an advocate for people with disabilities for generations to come. Helen triumphed over adversity and dedicated her life to helping others. Her legacy and beautiful spirit will never be forgotten.

Audrey Denison is a young professional working and living in Washington, D.C. Contact her at theanticovergirl@gmail.com

Dealing with Loss During the Holidays

Dealing with Loss During the Holidays

By Ariel Szuch, FaithCounts.com Contributor

dealing-with-lossI’m going into my third Christmas after my mother’s passing from cancer. Sometimes I ask myself if I really know how to “deal with” these things called loss and grief very well. If “dealing with” loss during the holiday season means coping with my grief in a healthy, proactive way, the answer to that question sometimes is, “Yes,” but often is, “Not really.”

I’m grateful for the principles I’ve learned in the last three years from friends, family members, and helping professionals about living with grief and loss, especially during the holidays. I’ve come to realize that putting these principles into effect is a practice—a daily effort over time that has peaks and valleys, but ultimately moves upward.

Principle 1: It isn’t possible to shut out grief during the holidays. You have to make a place for it.

I feel like articles like this tend to promote band-aid solutions to “feel better” during difficult times. The truth is, the pain of separation from those we love will never go away during this life, and sometimes it just hurts. I’ve realized that over the past few years I’ve often run away from my pain or tried to shut it out. However, stifled pain doesn’t go away—it just builds up until it comes out, often at inconvenient times and places.

One of the best pieces of counsel I received from a friend whose father passed away was to create space for grief. Build time into your life to go to that place where you allow yourself to feel that pain, and it won’t pop up and surprise you as much. This can take the form of counseling appointments, rituals like a special candlelight vigil, or an evening in to write about your feelings. Creating this space is always important, but especially at high-emotion times such as the holidays.

Principle 2: Be willing to be present with circumstances as they are and create new traditions.

Tied up in grief is pain of separation and pain of unmet expectations. The separation I can’t control, but I can adjust my expectations of how holidays should go based on my present circumstances.

My kind stepmom and I recently had a conversation about allowing things to be as they are instead of clinging to expectations of how things used to be. I went home for Thanksgiving this year and had a much better experience. I let go of some of my expectations that things would be the same as they were before my mom’s passing as well as my assumption that my family should take the initiative in making sure I had a good time.

For Christmas, my goal is to create new traditions for myself to honor my mother and help myself have a positive experience. My friend who lost her dad said that her family always hangs a special ornament in her father’s honor on Christmas Eve. That idea rang true to me—instead of holding our pain inside, we honor the past while making our loved ones a part of our holiday celebrations moving forward.

Principle 3: Be kind to yourself and reach out for support from those you trust.

During the holidays, some days are going to be painful—perhaps for the rest of my life. Some days I do well, writing about my feelings and reaching out to friends for support, and some days I binge-watch Jane Austen movies and cry in my room. I’m learning how to honor my grief as part of my story without letting my pain drive everything I do. I’m practicing, and my process is okay. Having a friend who can hold space for me without judging, whom I can reach out to day or night, has been invaluable in my healing process, and for anyone going through a similar situation I would wish the same.

Looking forward

So how will the holidays go this year for me? Sometimes when people ask me how I’m doing after a particularly emotionally trying episode, I say, “I’m good.” And I mean it. Growing, refining processes are not always fun and often painful, but they are good. They make me kinder, softer, and more compassionate to others and to myself. They give me the opportunity to come to know myself and come to know God. For me as a Christian, that is what Christmas is all about—hope in Christ and His power to overcome all things.

Ariel Szuch is a word nerd, writer, and compulsive reader who finds purpose in a life of faith.

2 Truths, Some Lies, and an Elephant

2 Truths, Some Lies, and an Elephant

By Camille Ward, FaithCounts.com Contributor

elephantAccording to Winston Churchill, “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”

What is truth, and what makes it so valuable?

Webster’s dictionary defines “truth” as “the state of being,” “reality,” or “fidelity to an original or to a standard.” In contrast, “false” means “misleading,” “based on mistaken ideas” and “inconsistent with the facts.”

The struggle to define truth is the product of differing experiences, limitations of human speech, and different interpretations or perspectives. Consider the story of the six blind men and the elephant, a traditional Indian tale:

Six blind men were each invited to touch an elephant so that they might each understand what it was. The first man touched the flexible trunk and declared, “it’s a snake!” Another, feeling the sturdy leg declared “no, it’s a pillar!” Each one in turn felt a part of the elephant, believing they had discovered a wall in the solid body, a rope in the tail, a spear in a sharp tusk, and a fan in the heavy, flapping ears. Each man did his best to deduct the truth, but still lacked the complete idea. So were the blind men telling the truth? It was the truth as they understood it, yet those with sight knew that the elephant was none of the things the blind men described. Despite seeing eyes, our own wrestle to uncover truth functions similarly today.

There are multiple schools of thought where truth is concerned, and they don’t often agree. Some of these philosophies’ definitions include the following:

1: Truth is what is agreed upon by the majority. False. Everyone may agree that it is perfectly safe to jump off a 50 foot building, but that won’t change the outcome. So while it may be wise to learn from others, it is also important to remember that while a majority rule may suggest proximity to truth, it doesn’t create it.

2. Truth is what each person knows or believes as an individual. False. Our beliefs color everything we see. Like the story of the elephant, people can come to different conclusions about the same idea because they interpret them through their own experiences. Just because someone isn’t lying doesn’t mean that they have the whole truth. I might find a rope where you find a snake, but the elephant will still be an elephant.

3. Truth does not exist beyond human thought. False. This statement suggests that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to do something. Which is great if you are finger-painting, but not if you are a participant in a murder trial. Instead, I believe that things exist that I have never seen nor will I ever see—my inability to comprehend these things does not prevent them from existing. If we believe reality exists beyond human thought, then so does truth.

4. There is such a thing as an absolute truth: True. The pursuit of truth is similar to scientists’ attempts to reach a temperature of absolute zero. Absolute zero is measured at 0 Kelvin, or -459.67 F (-273.15 C), when no more heat energy exists. Scientists have gotten very close to absolute zero, but they have never reached it. Similarly, I believe that while our personal experiences make absolute truth impossible to attain by men, it still exists. As humans seek to get as close as they can, they reap benefits of increased clarity and wisdom.

5. Truth is independent of men or human thought: True. Unlike men, truth is not affected by the passage of time. Truth is unchanging, holding to a standard that we cannot comprehend. That does not mean that it does not exist. While no man may have the full truth, I believe that someone out there does. God. In fact, I believe that truth is an essential aspect of his divinity. Even if we can’t reach truth, we still benefit from seeking after it—for as we come closer to truth, we come closer to God.

Finding Faith Through Doubt

Finding Faith Through Doubt

By Lauren Elkins, FaithCounts.com Contributor

doubt-of-the-century“The doubt of the century.”

When the Archbishop of Canterbury asked, “Is there a God? Where is God?”, the media frenzied on his doubts and labeled them with the phrase above. You can’t have doubts and lead a church!

That’s the feeling about doubt.

For example, James 1:6 reads, “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.”

In your mind, does doubt keep company with fear and unbelief, three possible stumbling blocks for faith? If you or I had doubts, we must be in a dark place, spiritually.

Really? Must we?

If Archbishop Justin Welby has a doubt, has he lost his faith?

I believe that faith depends on, even demands, that we experience doubts.

In the hours leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus, Peter was asked about Jesus three times and three times, he denied knowing Him. After the third denial, Jesus “turned, and looked upon Peter,” as recorded in Luke 22:61.

He turned. He looked.

I’ve pictured this story in my mind. I’ve imagined the fear felt by the mortal man, Peter. I’ve imagined the darkness and violence of that night.

I’ve pictured how Jesus must have looked back at Peter. I pictured an expression of abandonment, disappointment, sadness, or maybe even disgust.

Perhaps not.

Perhaps I read it all wrong.

“And the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter.”

That’s it. That’s all that Luke wrote. There’s no sensationalized account of what transpired.

Only a few hours prior, Jesus had knelt in the Garden of Gethsemane. He had suffered. He had bled from the pain. He took the sins of the world upon himself. Now He would know. Now He could succor.

Maybe instead, with His look, he told Peter, “I now know.” Could his eyes have been filled with love and empathy? He looked back at the man Peter, at the doubtful Peter, and perhaps His eyes were filled with understanding.

Perhaps he remembered. Perhaps He recalled a time when He had grabbed Peter’s hand as he sank into the Sea of Galilee. “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

He now understood Peter’s doubts. He now understood Peter’s fear. He now understood Peter’s faith! Peter stepped out of the boat. He walked on stormy waters. He felt doubt. He began to sink.

The power of doubt comes in how we choose to respond.

The boat was certain to Peter, a vessel built to float. Jesus was a man standing on the waters of a stormy sea. If Peter had given in to his doubt, let it overwhelm him and drive him back to what he knew for certain, he would have turned back towards the boat.

Instead, Peter reached out and called for Jesus.

Some may think it’s blasphemy to have doubts in your faith. Some may think you are transgressing to question the authenticity of your beliefs.

But, an attitude of certainty may lead to an attitude of self-righteous intolerance, dogmatism, and fundamentalism.

Embracing doubt can lead to deeper understanding through a process that strengthens faith. Flannery O’Connor, an American writer and essayist, described this:

“I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith… [People] think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.”

“Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”

Like the biblical father who said those words, Peter’s actions said the same: Jesus called; Peter stepped out; winds howled; Peter began to sink.

It was Peter’s doubt and unbelief that enabled him to grasp firmly to his faith.

Through doubt, I take on the necessary exploration of my beliefs.

I challenge those beliefs.

It is from personal doubt and unbelief that I then build the bedrock of my faith.

Lauren Elkins is a professional writer, former IT industry expert, and a mom. She also writes a personal blog and maintains a website at laurenelkins.com.

Spiritual Power Outages

Spiritual Power Outages

By Karen Trifiletti, FaithCounts.com Contributor

power-outagesSpiritual Power Outages

As a result of Hurricane Matthew pummeling Haiti, the Caribbean, and the Southeastern United States, millions were helpless to power up and many lived without light, and the ability to carry on the basic tasks of daily home and business life. Power lines on the coast were torn or aflame, hit by fallen trees and wind-sparked transmitters. And we, brothers and sisters of those caught in Matthew’s wake, have been affected deeply by the devastating impact— physically, emotionally, and spiritually—of those hit by the category three-four hurricane.

As I’ve thought about Hurricane Matthew, I’ve thought about power outages in our own, everyday lives. Times when the lights go out. When things don’t seem to add up spiritually, and our faith-light dims. Maybe the storm that strikes seems to knock out the light altogether, and we face some sense of complete and utter darkness. We feel alone. Or afraid. Or abandoned. Most of us don’t like dark. At least not dark around the clock. We crave light. We need both a power source and a light source.

I remember camping one night in the mountains. We settled into the trailer and I snuggled under the covers. The sun was down. I could see absolutely nothing. It was pitch black inside the camper. I mean pitch black. I could almost feel the darkness. I blinked, and blinked again. Surely there was a sliver of light within my view’s circumference, a tiny bit of city light cast into the trailer. But no. Nothing. Finally, I couldn’t bear it. I had to find some satisfying spark of light. I jumped out of bed and groped my way to the door. I looked around. Nothing. And then I glanced upward. I saw the glimmer of a few distant stars in a clear dark sky. Ah, a bit of light. I basked in what it meant to be under the influence of a starlit sky. I should have slept there, but I didn’t. Instead, I returned to the trailer, grabbed a flashlight, turned it on—tucking it under the covers—and slept peacefully through the night. I remember that night, the night when the dark was just too dark.

Are there times in your life when you have felt spiritually numb or powerless, some midnight hour of fear or worry or loneliness? Where you looked for the light of relief but couldn’t yet find the stars? Perhaps you discovered a loved one’s sickness or addiction, or you were betrayed by one you thought your confidante and friend. Maybe you faced enemies you could not conquer alone. Or you felt powerless over your own circumstances. Has there been a time when you felt you underwent a spiritual power outage? A night when the dark was just too dark?

I remember the story of one man, a fellow warrior, who did. His name was Jehosophat, and he was surrounded by armies he could not have defeated alone. He faced a long, dark night. He knew, though, that there was a Higher Power to whom He could turn. And he did. He identified the problem and he asked for help. He said,

“We have no might against this great company that cometh against us; neither know we what to do: but our eyes are upon [you].”[1]

He didn’t know how to execute and he didn’t want to execute. So he asked. He then did as he felt directed to do—he went down to the brook—and left the rest in the hands of his Higher Power. And he and his people were delivered. The light had overturned the dark.

Sometimes we feel we have no power except to seek the power of the universe, the power that is accessible to those who believe it’s there. There is no problem that our Higher Power is not aware of or does not know how to solve. Then we discern the direction that comes to us as we listen mindfully. Those words or impressions come as packets of spiritual power. It may be to trust a promise; it may be “to go down to our own brooks”—nearby places where God wants to do a work or help us resolve our issue. It may be to set boundaries between us and the approaching darkness. It may be to stand still and wait for further instruction. These impressions are a lamp and a light for our feet and show us where to go.[2] And as we follow those, God does the rest.

That’s the kind of power that is accessible through our faith. It’s the kind that turns on the light. It comes as we ask for it, like Jehosophat did, and as we follow through with what we receive in response. We are refined, and a brighter glory shines than before.

We can all turn on that switch to that spiritual power. Even when we can’t do anything else. We can act and not be acted upon, even when we feel powerless. We can turn to our Higher Power. And faith will light the way.

Faith counts. It provides power beyond our own. Power to extend our natural abilities, to overcome weakness, to triumph in trial, to become better and more useful, to prepare solutions around us, to give us hope, peace, assurance, comfort and direction on otherwise dark and helpless nights. We can conquer. We can triumph. We can overcome. But not alone.

How have you accessed that power in time of spiritual outage?

[1] 2 Chronicles 20:12

[2] Psalm 119:105

Karen R. Trifiletti, M.A. is a mother of two, writer/author, with extensive faith-based web and print writing, training, and creative development experience. Contact her at karenrose.trif@gmail.com.

5 Surprising Ways Running Can Be Your Spiritual Practice

5 Surprising Ways Running Can Be Your Spiritual Practice

By Mike Fitzgerald, FaithCounts.com Contributor

runningA few years ago, three wake-up calls got my attention. My brother died of cancer, and I was reminded of how important it is to honor and care for our bodies. Not long after that, an acquaintance announced on Facebook that he had walked a mile on his treadmill, in just over an hour—quite a feat considering he was paralyzed with lupus. Then I discovered that a friend in his 70s, who moved like a man half his age, was running four full marathons a year.

These experiences taught me that I wasn’t doing enough to respect my body. I knew it was time to make some changes. I’d admired runners from a distance, but I was afraid to ask my body to pay in sweat. Deep down, I had the ability to run, and I knew it would be great adventure for me, so why wasn’t I doing it?

After thinking about all this for many months, one winter morning, I pulled on an old pair of gray sweatpants, laced up my athletic shoes, and forced myself into the biting January air. I only ran about a mile that day—by sheer force of will. But it felt good afterward and I wanted to do it again.

Running has become part of the natural rhythm of my life. I ran two half marathons this year, besting my time each race. I’ve shed 20 pounds and kept them off for several years. I’ve picked up a lot of obvious health benefits from running and I’ve also gained some not-so-obvious spiritual benefits. Here are five things I’ve learned from running that have helped me go deeper spiritually.

1. Running Helps Me Believe in Myself

Why not have faith in yourself? I’m not talking about being arrogant or self-centered, but holding a straight-out belief that you can expect better things out of yourself. I’ve been dancing with a dodgy disease for over a decade, so when I first got started, running a competitive race seemed only remotely possible. But I’ve run 11 races since I started running again. I’m staring that disease down every day, challenging it with faith in myself and in the resilience of my body. And it’s working.

2. Running Helps Me Believe in Something Bigger Than Myself

Left to its own devices, your body will always want the shortcut. Unchecked it will lunge at corner-store junk food, fling itself on the couch, watch mindless television for hours, glut on weekend-long video games, or plead for something worse. But you are more than your body. There is something infinite inside of you that longs to express itself. Turn off the greed gland and you’ll be able to reach for something higher.

3. Running Heals Me

After a few weeks of getting on my feet and peeling the mattress off my back, my body chemistry changed. My body longed to get out and run and started reminding me to do that often. It liked my lower blood pressure, the lost pounds, and the regular endorphin high. And when I really listened to it, my body steered me toward real food, not the imitation stuff. I’ve started to heal and it feels good.

4. Running Amps Up My Meditation

Lots of runners like to listen to music when they run, but I rarely do. I’ve found my thinking is more clear when I’m running than at any other time, and I’m more open to new ways of looking at the world. I listen to my body and to my inner self. I sort through problems and discover solutions. Almost without fail, I come back home with a feeling of peace and a better sense of balance and well-being.

5. Running Inspires Me to Worship

I’ve gotten in the habit of offering a lot of thanks when I’m running. As I take in the beauty of the world and the miracle of the human body, I can’t hold back the sincere, overwhelming sense of gratitude I have for God’s gifts. Running time is a time I feel connected my Higher Power. With new spring in my feet, I feel a oneness with heaven. It’s helped me come face-to-face with who I really am, and the better I know my true self, the closer I feel to God.

Running, to me, is more of a spiritual practice than a physical one. It has taken me places I didn’t think I could ever go again. It’s a path of peace I won’t be stepping off soon.

Michael Fitzgerald is a husband and lover of all things outdoors. You can reach him at www.michaeljamesfitzgerald.com.

When Bad Things Happen to Good People

When Bad Things Happen to Good People

Bad things happen to good people. Despite all our faith and prayers, things still go wrong. This last week alone one of my neighbors broke a leg, one pinched a nerve in their neck, and another’s barn burned down just when the hay was in. They were all good people. And misfortune found them just the same. But why?

dr-who

One of my favorite quotes comes from an episode of the British sci-fi series Doctor Who, when the beloved time-traveler and his companion, Amy, meet the artist Vincent Van Gogh. Although Amy hopes that their love and support would be enough for Van Gogh to overcome his depression, they return to the future to find that the now beloved genius still led a broken life which ended in suicide. Yet the Doctor comforts Amy, telling her, “Every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant. And we definitely added to his pile of good things.”

This statement struck me the first time I heard it. No matter what I or anyone else does, bad things still happen. Natural disasters don’t pick and choose who is good or bad. A failing economy is as likely to affect a kind person as it is a cruel one. However, these things don’t make life any less of a miracle or God any less real. Sometimes disaster is brought on by our own mistakes. Sometimes it comes as part of the course of life. These trials don’t mean that God doesn’t care or doesn’t exist. I believe they must have another purpose.

Perhaps one of those reasons is so that we can learn to add to the pile of good things. The pile of bad things may seem monumental, but that only makes the pile of good things that much more important. Someone who has felt terrible pain will feel joy all the more sweetly when the time comes. Each day we add small pieces to our piles, seemingly insignificant drops in the ocean as we notice the small blessings that God has brought into our lives—be it through a bouquet of sunflowers or a starry night. There are also those moments when we can add to someone else’s pile of good things at the same time, and our faith will magnify those drops. When the bad times come, and they will come, we can remember the ocean of blessings God has given us.

It is true, bad things happen to good people. It is also true that good things happen to good people; the bad things in life don’t necessarily spoil them or make them unimportant. So if you are in the midst of a trial, don’t give up. Don’t let the pain tarnish the pile of good things in your life. You will find that there was more good than you realized.

Camille Ward is a student of English Education at BYU. She loves to spend time with her family and is not to be trusted in bookstores or bakeries.

3 Hidden Symbols of the Pumpkin

3 Hidden Symbols of the Pumpkin

By Maddy Stutz, FaithCounts.com Contributor

pumpkin
The first sign of fall isn’t an early sunset or the changing leaves…it’s the return of pumpkin spice lattes. In fact, it’s the return of pumpkin spiced anything! From scented candles to new Pinterest recipes you can easily find pumpkin sprinkled throughout hundreds of goodies, but did you know the pumpkin actually has some pretty deep meaning? Here are three things to remember while chowing down on your next pumpkin scone!

The Squash of Abundance

Remember scanning the pumpkin patch looking for the biggest pumpkin you could find? Well the bigger is literally the better, since the pumpkin represents abundance and prosperity! The whole pumpkin represents the world we live in now, and is literally filled with blessings waiting to be granted. Each seed represents an opportunity available to you in this life, and with an average pumpkin having about 500 seeds you can literally count your blessings!

Instead of tossing out your pumpkin seeds after carving a ghoulish face, go ahead and count them up! A fun activity with the family could even include assigning a blessing to a seed and watching how big your pile grows! Sometimes we get caught up in our newest problem that we don’t recognize granted blessings and answered prayers.

I Dreamed a Dream

Along with representing blessings, pumpkin seeds also represent your dreams! Whether that’s a dream for your future or one crafted while getting a good night’s rest, each seed represents a possibility.

Have you ever dreamt about a pumpkin seed? When appearing in a dream the seeds are believed to be deeply connected to your spirit or soul, providing reassurance for a decision or goal you are pursuing. To dream of a whole pumpkin is to symbolize openness to new possibilities and encourage you to try new things!

If you’ve recently dreamt of either a pumpkin or its seeds, take a moment to reflect on its meaning. Our dreams often reflect our deep inner thoughts, which can unearth emotions we didn’t recognize before. Are you about to take a leap of faith? Have you recently made a big decision, but have begun second guessing? Trust your gut, and follow your faith.

I Heard It on the Pumpkin Vine

This one may sound obvious, but the vine of the pumpkin ties directly into friendship and connection. The pumpkin receives all its nutrients from the ground through the vine, and is a connection to the world from which it grows.

Much like the pumpkin, we gain our social and spiritual “nutrients” through the “vine” of friendship. Making a connection with another person is how we grow as individuals, find deeper meaning in our lives, and stay healthy and strong. Without a strong connection to others we begin to shrivel up and lose our connection to the world we live in.

From a spiritual sense, a weak “vine” or connection to our beliefs can weaken our faith and leave us lost. By strengthening our connection with our own spirituality we can better connect with the world around us and help others find their way.

As a writer, believer, and chronic Pinterest fail-er, Maddy believes that everyone has a unique message to share with the world, and enjoys finding new ways to strengthen her faith through different perspectives.

6 Inspiring Quotes from Nelson Mandela

6 Inspiring Quotes from Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was South Africa’s first black president, an anti-Apartheid icon, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and though he wasn’t extremely public about his Christianity, a man of great faith.

nelson-mandela-01

Mandela, fiercely devoted to unity in his country and among his people, avoided divisive speech, at least later in his life. In general, that included religious discourse. However, his Christian beliefs were evident in the way he lived his life and in many of his statements on forgiveness, love, equality and optimism.

Here are six statements from Nelson Mandela that affirm the power of faith to overcome fear, prejudice and hate. (For more great quotes from Nelson Mandela and background on some of those listed below, visit https://www.nelsonmandela.org/content/page/selected-quotes)

1. “Difficulties break some men but make others. No axe is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise even in the end.” (From a letter to Winnie Mandela, written from the prison on Robben Island, 1 Feb. 1975)

The imagery of a triumphant “sinner who keeps on trying” with “hope that he will rise even in the end” is a decidedly Christian ideal with application to all people — especially those facing adversity.

2. “A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dreamt of.” (Spoken in Kliptown, Soweto, South Africa, 12 July 2008)

Mandela’s acute observation of the power of selflessness is reminiscent of the biblical ideal to “love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:39).

3. “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Mandela’s message of equality, love and tolerance reflects the faithful belief that God is no respecter of persons.

4. “You have to have been in an apartheid prison in South Africa to appreciate the further importance of the church. They tried to isolate us completely from the outside. Our relatives could see us only once every six months. The link was religious organisations, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and members of the Jewish faith. They were the faithful who inspired us. The WCC’s support exemplified in the most concrete way the contribution that religion made to our liberation.” (Address to the 8th Assembly of the World Council of Churches, Harare, Zimbabwe, 1998)

In this statement, Mandela recognized the positive influence of faithful people from all over the world and their effect on him personally.

5. “The Good News borne by our risen Messiah who chose not one race, who chose not one country, who chose not one language, who chose not one tribe, who chose all of humankind!” (Address to the Zionist Christian Church’s Easter Conferences, 1994.)

Like many Africans, Mandela had faith in Jesus Christ that sustained him through difficult times. He also looked to Christ as an example of unconditional love and as a proponent of equality.

6. “The Church was as concerned with this world as the next: I saw that virtually all of the achievements of Africans seemed to have come about through the missionary work of the Church.” (From his autobiography, “The Long Walk to Freedom,” on his experiences with Christianity early in life)

People of faith, regardless of specific religious beliefs and practices, are generally concerned with the welfare of their fellow beings all over the world. Mandela recognized the good in these faithful people and praised them for their efforts.

Breanna is the author of one book, the mother of two daughters, and a frequent contributor to several faith-based magazines and blogs. She blogs about her faith, her family, and her favorite things at www.breannaolaveson.com.

Faith Enough to Adopt

Faith Enough to Adopt

Stephen Wunderli

It takes faith to have children. Ours was best described as naive faith when we were first married. The kind you have when your imagination has not yet been tainted by tragedy or trial and you believe everything will be perfect.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Wunderli

Photo courtesy of Stephen Wunderli

And so we had children. No worries, we’ll raise them on Peter Rabbit and baseball, teach them about God and kindness and love them to the moon and back. Our first came, beautiful as expected. But at two years old we discovered she had cancer in her left eye. Our faith was tried and tempered. She lost her eye, but not her strong spirit. OK, so God really does love us, we realized. The next two had the usual childhood illnesses. Faith returned in full, yet a little more mature. The next little guy was born with Spina Bifida. Now our faith was put to the test. After 17 operations we realized that yes, God still does love us. He loves us enough to entrust us with a child who is not perfect. We had our family, and we had an increase in faith.

Check and check.

I was anxious to get my passing grade in life. I remember thinking I had completed the test, but it was just beginning. Faith, we would learn, is intertwined threads reaching from faraway people and places to bind us together in the tapestry of God’s creations and intentions. I didn’t know then how much my life was about to change…but I saw the signs. Literally.

I was out on my regular morning run and on the marquee of the local Unitarian Church it read: “Never put a period where God intends a comma.”

A few days later, when the house was quiet, my wife was looking at me from her reading chair. It’s that look I learned to recognize: we need to talk. I took a deep breath and waited. “I don’t think our family is complete,” she said. “I’ve been having these feelings…I think we should adopt.” The one thing we had learned to do was trust prayer as a way to get direction, even if I jogged past the answer every morning.

When you have biological children, you have faith in each other, faith in the doctors, faith in God. When you adopt a child, those threads of faith go out searching to connect with the faith of the right adoption agency, the right birth mother, more doctors, legal entities, social workers…your faith is that others will have faith so that the child God intends for your family makes it into your home.

How could all those moving pieces possibly work in our favor? Of course: by faith. Our packet, with all our family photos, was completed and circulated to expectant mothers who had found the courage to go full-term and give their child up for adoption. Some were teenage moms. Some were women who couldn’t seem to fight their way out of the overwhelming circumstances of drugs, unemployment, lack of family support. They sent us their packets as well, openly pouring their hearts out. I was humbled by their faith that God had a place for the child they were carrying; and despite their situations, miracles would happen. We spent weeks looking at mother profiles and praying. We asked our friends and family to pray for us. But nothing seemed to come together.

And that’s when my wife had a dream. “I saw our baby,” she announced in the middle of the night. A few days later a profile of one of the mothers came in with a sweet letter: “…when I saw your photos, I knew I was carrying this baby for you.” The mother went on to explain that the pregnancy was a mistake; that she knew from the beginning the child belonged to somebody else and she was only a vehicle. She believed God had planted these feelings in her heart and she trusted them.

A week later we were on a plane to Atlanta. The baby was on its way and would be staying with a cradle-care mother for ten days until the baby could travel. I flew on the coat tails of my wife’s faith. She had seen our baby in a dream and felt like this mother was going to deliver her. The baby was born while we were in flight. We spent a day with the agency getting all the paperwork settled, and went off to meet Lynn, the cradle-care mother. It was Lynn’s faith that touched us most—she believed every child she cared for was guided by God to the right family. In her early-sixties, her children raised, Lynn was sitting in the congregation of her Baptist church one Sunday. The Pastor announced that the local hospital needed cradle-care mothers to take care of newborns the first ten days of their life before they were adopted. “I knew it was my calling,” Lynn told us. “It just hit me that this was something God wanted me to be a part of.” Since then, she has taken in over 60 babies, and sends each a birthday card every year reminding them of the special feelings she witnessed when baby met parents for the first time. She softly ushered us into the nursery of her home. My wife gasped, then wept. “This is the child I saw in my dream.”

Insert comma here.

Four years later, another child came to us through adoption. A child born in trials and neglect whose grandmother had faith enough to take custody of the two-year-old and pray nightly for five months until she found us. Faith. It has no limits, is no respecter of persons, waits patiently for us to unfold it. Our family may be complete but our faith grows every day by portions shared with us by those who got us here.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Wunderli

Photo courtesy of Stephen Wunderli

Life is an exercise in faith, and sometimes we ride on the currents of faith that swirl around us, knowing that God is in charge of us, our families and all those whom we love.